Friday, December 29, 2017

"Apollo 13" (1995)

My family didn't go to movies much when I was a kid.  We preferred to rent videos so my parents could manage the content a little better -- watch them before the kids, fast-forward through iffy scenes, or stop them to talk things through with us.  So at the age of 15, I had seen only 4 or 5 movies in the theater.  I'd seen one with friends in the spring of 1995, but I hadn't seen a movie in the theater with my parents since 1988.

I'm just telling you this so you understand what a HUGE deal it was when, in the middle of July, my parents decided to take my brother and I to see Apollo 13 in the theater.  My aunt and uncle had told them it was good, and my brother and I were already somewhat nuts about astronauts (no lie, I still kinda wish I was an astronaut), and the air conditioning at my grandparents' house where we were staying was on the fritz.  It was mid-July in Iowa.  Not a great time for there to be no A/C, especially in one small house with six people, two of whom were ten and fifteen.

So my parents decided to treat us to a night at the movie theater.  It was probably my brother's second time ever in a theater, and the first time would have been when he was three.  We were beyond excited.  Just about out of our tiny minds with anticipation.

This was 22 years ago, but I can still remember that theater so vividly.  It was small, much smaller than any of the auditoriums at the megaplex I go to now.  But in my memory, the screen was massive.  There were quite a few other people there, but it wasn't full by any means -- the movie had been out for a few weeks.

Toward the end of the film (this is a SPOILER if you haven't seen the movie and don't know the history behind it), when the astronauts survive reentry and make contact with NASA again, the people in the movie stand up and cheer and clap and hug and cry.

The people in that little theater, mostly stoic Iowa farmers... also cheered and clapped.  I have tears in my eyes just remembering it.  I've been to hundreds of movies in the theater since that night, but I have never seen an audience react to a movie so strongly.  Sure, sometimes people clap at the end of a film (Connecticut audiences do that a lot, I noticed -- that was cool).  But they never cheer and clap in the middle out of the sheer emotional need to respond to what's happening on-screen.

That's the kind of movie Apollo 13 is.  The kind that celebrates humanity's ability to rise above tragedy and despair, to achieve things they didn't know they were capable of in order to save someone else, maybe someone they've never met.

The story opens in 1969, with the families of various astronauts gathered the house of Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) to watch the live footage of Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon.  Lovell can't wait to get to the moon himself -- he was on the backup crew for Apollo 11, and is now slated for not the next mission, but the one after that.

Less than a year later, Lovell's prepping for his own mission, Apollo 13.  He and his fellow astronauts, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), are fine-tuned, honed, so ready for their mission they can taste it.  And then Mattingly gets exposed to measles, and NASA takes him off the mission, replacing him with playboy Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon).  Swigert and Haise don't get along particularly well, adding tension to the final days of preparation.

Still, the mission starts well, with a breathtaking lift-off.  Haise and Lovell's wives attend the lift-off, supporting each other as they watch their husbands leave earth.  Mary Haise (Tracy Reiner) is pregnant, due not long after their husbands return.  Marilyn Lovell (Kathleen Quinlan) has been increasingly anxious about this mission, especially the fact that this mission bears the unlucky number of thirteen.

At first, all goes fine.  But of course, terrible stuff happens eventually, because otherwise it wouldn't be such a triumphant, glorious movie with people overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles and being all heroic.  (I'M TOTALLY SPOILING EVERYTHING FROM HERE ON OUT.  You've Been Warned.)

A tiny malfunction in a tiny part of the spacecraft causes an explosion that rocks the whole ship.

And that's when Lovell utters the immortal line that's on the poster:  "Houston, we have a problem."

A major problem, as it turns out -- their spacecraft is damaged, it's off course, and they're suddenly short on oxygen.  The three astronauts are going to have to figure out how to survive in space, not to mention get safely back to earth again.

Back in Houston, the NASA people band step right up to the task of solving all the problems involved in bringing three men in a crippled ship back home.  Flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) tells them, "Failure is not an option."

Ken Mattingly gets pulled back in to help run reentry scenarios in their simulators.  (And he never gets the measles.)

Lovell, Haise, and Swigert are certainly heroic as they refuse to panic, work together on the various tasks needed to stabilize their ship, and attempt to reenter earth's atmosphere in a crippled space ship.  But they really have no choice -- they're stuck where they are and just have to do what they're told.

It's the people on the ground that I find particularly inspirational.

Scientists, mathematicians, programmers, engineers, and other astronauts all dealing with an unexpected situation.

They pour their collective intelligence, knowledge, and creativity into saving the lives of three men that many of them have never even met.

And they succeed.  Lovell, Haise, and Swigert return safely to earth.  The real Jim Lovell even gets a cameo as the captain of the Naval vessel that retrieves them from the ocean.  The events of Apollo 13 really happened, which makes the valiant ingenuity of the people involved all the more remarkable.

Is this movie family friendly?  Yes, for teens and up.  It's pretty intense throughout, and I think that some scenes would scare kids under 12 or so.  There's some language -- more than usual for a PG movie.  And there's a bit of mild innuendo here and there.  No nudity (one scene of Jack Swigert stepping out of a shower with only a towel wrapped around him, and there's an unseen woman still in the shower, but he's not married), no violence.

This has been my contribution to the Inspirational Heroes Blogathon hosted by myself and Quiggy.  Head to this post for the list of other posts revolving around characters who inspire us.

The Inspirational Heroes Blogathon is Here!

Welcome to the Inspirational Heroes Blogathon!  When you've written your article, please leave a link in the comments either here or on The Midnite Drive-In's post, and we'll add you to the roster of finished entries.

Check back either here or at Quiggy's blog over the next few days, as we'll be adding to the roster as new entries arrive.

Thanks for joining us in celebrating the heroic characters who inspire us!

The Heroes

George Bailey, the Everyman's Holiday Hero: It's a Wonderful Life (1946) at Angelman's Place

Low Rent Gym Rats: Rocky (1976) at the Midnite Drive-In

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) on Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

Stand by Me (1986) -- guest post at Hamlette's Soliloquy by Jessica Prescott

Glenda Farrel as Torchy Blane at Caftan Woman

The Inspirational Pull of Meet the Robinsons (2007) at Coffee, Classics, and Craziness

The Brave Person in Every Sci-Fi Movie: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) at Silver Screenings

Apollo 13 (1995) at Hamlette's Soliloquy

Jefferson Smith of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) at The Story Enthusiast

Hildy Johnson: Rosalind Russell's Iconic Girl Friday: His Girl Friday (1940) 
at Love Letters to Old Hollywood

Boys Town (1938) on Critica Retro

The Hunt for Red October (1990) at Along the Brandywine

Stella Dallas (1937) at Charlene's (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) at Movie Rob

Hacksaw Ridge (2016) at Movie Rob

United 93 (2006) at Movie Rob

On Golden Pond (1981) at Motion Picture Gems

The Inspirational Hero: Frank Capra's Meet John Doe (1941) on Silver Screen Classics

Good Will Hunting (1997)'s Sean Maguire: My Hero at The Story and You: A Film Blog

What I Find Inspiring About Secretariat (2010) at Meanwhile in Rivendell

Sergeant York (1941) at Sat in Your Lap

A Not-So-Simple Story: The Ascent (1977) on Cinematic Scribblings

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) at Movies Meet Their Match

"Stand By Me" (1986) -- Guest Post by Jessica Prescott

(Note from Hamlette:  Thanks so much for contributing this post to the blogathon, Jessica!  You've definitely made me want to see this movie.)

“What are you gonna do?  Shoot us all?” 
“No, Ace.  Just you.” 

Man, I love this movie. 

Stand By Me is my story.  And Gordie LaChance is my hero.  Maybe that’s a little weird—maybe a film about four (slightly) foul-mouthed 12-year-olds in rural postwar Oregon isn’t supposed to resonate with me on this level—but, as the immortal Chris Chambers himself says, “So what, man?  Everybody’s weird.” 

This movie’s such a classic, you probably already know what it’s about.  At the tail end of summer vacation, Gordie LaChance and his three closest pals—Chris, Vern, and Teddy—head into the woods to find a missing classmate’s dead body.  They’re vaguely hoping for some reward money, and maybe their pictures in the local paper . . . but, as their long, slow trek wears on, with laughter and song and a few exciting clashes with the neighborhood bullies in the bargain, our young hero Gordie begins to fall into a dark, dangerous place inside. 

You see, Gordie knows something about death.  His older brother died a few months back—a car accident; and the memories still haunt him.  There’s a heartbreaking dream sequence, towards the middle of the film, where Gordie hears his father say clearly, “It should’ve been you, Gordie.”  Bad enough, if it were just a dream—but Gordie knows it’s not.  His own father truly does wish it had been his younger son who died in that crash.  Not his older one.  Not his All-American football star with a shot at a college scholarship.  He never asked to be left with the shy bookworm and dreamy budding writer that is Gordie LaChance; and he doesn’t try to hide his anger. 

It hurts. 

The bewilderment, the guilt—it’s written all over Gordie’s face; it underlies every move that he makes.  Vern and Teddy may not notice, but Chris does.  And we do.  As the story plods lazily forward, the tension builds, and builds, and builds . . . until they finally find the dead boy’s body in the woods.  And that’s when it all comes pouring out. 

Gordie sinks down onto a nearby fallen tree—sobs shaking his skinny, 12-year-old body, tears trickling down his face.  “It should’ve been me.”  Talk about child actors all you want; Will Wheaton beats them all hollow with just this one scene.  Meanwhile, Chris—sweet, gentle Chris, played to starry-eyed perfection by a very young River Phoenix—puts an arm around his shoulders and tries to comfort his friend.  “Don’t say that, man.”  Gordie can’t stop crying:  “He hates me . . . my dad hates me.”  Chris’ response is one of the finest lines of the entire movie: 

“He doesn’t hate you, man.  He just doesn’t know you.” 

That’s when the bullies show up again. 

They’ve been making a nuisance of themselves throughout the whole journey; but it’s worse this time. They want the reward money, you see.  When they find our four boys in the woods, with the body, they assume it’ll be a walk in the park to scare off the competition—and they get angry when they find out it’s not. 

Ace (the gang leader) pulls out a switchblade and points it at the kids.  Vern runs off.  Teddy sasses Ace, then follows Vern.  Chris holds his ground, tells the bully in specific and colorful terms where exactly he can go and what he can do . . . and just as Ace jumps on him with the switchblade, a gun goes off.

It’s Gordie.  He’s standing there, on his own two feet, pointing a .45 straight at Ace Merrill’s heart, and the muzzle barely wavers a single hair—because this kid has guts of steel and if you think you know his limits, you’re wrong. 

“You’re not taking him, Ace.  Nobody’s taking him.” 

Do you see why the boy is my hero?   

He’s someone who can go from sobbing his eyes out over his father’s rejection, one moment, and then standing up like a girder of iron for someone who can’t protect himself the next.  Maybe the world hates him, and maybe the world just doesn’t know him.  Maybe the world thinks he’s a sissy.  But that won’t stop him from doing what’s right when the time comes.  Those tears come from his heart; and that courage comes from his heart, too. 

He’s Gordie LaChance.  He’s my inspiration. 

How about you?  

Saturday, December 23, 2017

"The Greatest Showman" (2017) -- Initial Thoughts

If I had to sum up this movie in one word, it would be celebration.  Not that it's a movie filled only with sunshine and rainbows, because it's not -- there's some genuine darkness here and there.  But that only serves to make you appreciate the light more.

For centuries, actors and actresses and other showbiz folk were viewed with suspicion because so often they were "different."  Sometimes that was because they were a different race, from a different country or region, had strange abilities, even were physically unusual.  Sometimes it was because they were so transient, moving around from place to place in order to find an audience.  Theatre people have been viewed as everything from amoral to immoral to downright dangerous. 

I mean, think about what happens in Hamlet when the troupe of actors arrives.  Polonius, though he has acted in the past himself, treats them with disdain.  Prince Hamlet insists they be treated with dignity and spends quite a few words on how important they actually are.  He's clearly in the minority with his views in Elsinore, though.

But the theatre world has also long been the place where misfits are welcome.  Weirness, quirkiness, oddness, even freakishness is welcome there.  Embraced, even.  Being different can be an asset in theatre, not a handicap.

It probably won't surprise any of you to learn that when I was in college, I was considered weird.  (I didn't go to high school, but if I had, I'm sure I'd have been weird there too.)  I was homeschooled, I enjoyed studying, I liked old movies and old music and old books.  I didn't smoke, didn't party, didn't cuss, didn't skip chapel unless I was sick, didn't drink alcohol until I turned 21, and didn't like sports.  Total freak, in other words.

And I hung out with the weird people too.  The girl with the black lipstick and all the black clothes and the staggering collection of Metallica CDs.  The guy with the tattoos and dyed hair.  The girl who wore pants under her skirts and quoted Arlo Guthrie songs.  People who were weird, who were unusual, who were different

I wasn't quite in the theatre crowd in college.  I lurked on the fringes of it.  I painted scenery.  I sang and frolicked in the chorus for three musicals.  And I was friends with some of the theatre people, and went to every play they put on.  Even at a tiny, Lutheran college in the Midwest, the theatre crowd was where the weird people got to be embraced and included.  Didn't matter if you were tall or short, skinny or fat, black or white, talented or just enthusiastic -- you were welcome there, and something you did well would be found, fostered, put to use.

And that is what The Greatest Showman celebrates. 

P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) starts life poor.  Mistreated, malnourished, eventually orphaned, he takes a job with the railroad and goes west, coming back to New York City a respectable adult.  He marries his childhood sweetheart, Charity (Michelle Williams), who comes from a rich family but leaves them to live in a tenement with him while he works one job after another.  They have two sweet daughters, and although they're barely scraping by, they're happy.

Barnum loses his job, cons a bank into loaning him a lot of money, and opens a sort of museum of oddities, kind of like one of those Ripley's Believe it or Not places you find in tourist traps.  But it doesn't succeed until he takes his daughters' advice and hires performers and outcasts.  To the little man who would become known as Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), Barnum says, "They're laughing at you anyway -- why not get paid for it?"  He didn't try to convince the people he hired that they were normal, he helped them find ways to use their differentness to earn a living.  And by doing that, he gave them a chance for acceptance.  Not acceptance by the audiences who came to gawk at them, but acceptance from each other.

In the literary and theatre crowd at my college, we knew we were the weirdos.  We knew that the popular people laughed at us.  But we accepted and respected each other.  And that came to matter more to me, at least, than whether or not other people called me "the smart girl with really long hair" instead of my name.

There's a point in The Greatest Showman where Barnum stops accepting and including his performers.  He shuts him out of a fancy gala.  He turns his back on them and seeks after fame by a different route, escorting famous singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) across the country and promoting her concerts.  He abandons his family, his performers, everyone who counts on him.  And eventually, he realizes that by leaving them behind, he's left behind the people who accept him for himself as well.  Lind wants him to be her consort, not her manager, and when he refuses her advances, she breaks her contract and bankrupts him.  She even tries to rob him of his family by causing a scandal. 

Lind shows that even in the world of the theatre, which the movie mostly peoples with kind, generous, helpful people, there are selfish and mean-spirited people as well.  There were in my college's theatre world too -- because people are people no matter where they are, all sinners everywhere.  The lesson here isn't that theatre people are perfect and everyone else are losers.  It's that accepting people despite their imperfections, embracing their weirdness, and not trying to make them be what they aren't is a good and honorable way to live your life.

You may have guessed that I loved this movie.  I've had to recalibrate my list of favorite movies I saw in 2017 so I can fit this on it.  Hugh Jackman is one of my absolute favorite actors, and he shines so brightly here, obviously enjoying his every moment in the role.  Even the unhappy ones.  His scenes with his protege and later partner, Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), are particularly excellent.  They share a boisterous dance that I can't wait to see again.

Was this movie family friendly?  Remarkably so!  One song has the word 'd--n' in it, I think.  I don't recall any other bad language, though I may have forgotten something.  There are a few scanty costumes, some kissing.  A fire scene that would probably scare small children.  I would recommended it for maybe 8 and up.  I plan to let my kids watch it when it comes to DVD, with me to fast-forward through the fire scene.  There's also a non-gory brawl and the suggestion that Barnum's wife thinks he's been unfaithful, though as far as the movie shows, he was not.  They never say that out loud, it's all implied.

I have other thoughts about this movie too, but this is long and gushy already.  I may write another review when I've seen it again, though that might not be until DVD since I need to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi in the theater yet, so I might not have a chance to go see this again.  I would like to, though, because it is an awesome spectacle on the big screen.